The recent arrest of six Somali-American young men, suspected of trying to join an overseas terror organization, has triggered a flood of emotions in Minnesota’s Somali community. Fittingly, community leaders are floating proposals to help everyone cope with these emotions.

The sorrow of heart-broken mothers touched many in in Minnesota’s Somali community. A mother of two suspects wept while trying to answer a question from a reporter. Her excruciating pain percolated to two daughters, who also wept as they accompanied their mother to court.

A suspect’s brother unleashed loads of disgust and frustration upon the informant who helped authorities. “I’m mad,” he told a flock of reporters covering court proceedings. A seventh man was arrested after posting a series of menacing messages on social media.

Friends and family who packed the courtroom during the detention hearing were dismayed to learn that the suspects were being held in solitary confinement, with ankles and wrists shackled, invoking images of Guantanamo Bay. About 200 supporters of grief-stricken families showed up at a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol and questioned the utility of shackling.

Other parents are nervous. These suspects lived in the community, with many casual contacts and acquaintances. Parents are worried about the suspects’ acquaintances getting caught up in what appears to be dragnet investigation. Some in the community are concerned about the possibility of another wave of arrests as the grand jury investigation continues.

The arrest also triggered disputes between the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota and Twin Cities Somali mosque leaders over terror arrest notification. In the past, the two sides have discussed notification related to arrests of terror suspects involving Somali-Americans. But the two sides differ on the scope of those discussions. 

These discussions were part of a broader outreach effort. The goal was to enhance collaboration between community leaders and law enforcement agencies.

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota, there was no agreement but an “offer to notify Imams and community leaders about terrorism-related charges affecting the Somali community as they become public.” In this case, notification went out prior to the press conference where the arrests were announced. Anything beyond that could endanger law enforcement officers and sometimes is prohibited by court order.

Mosque leaders are in the view the agreement was broader in scope. They contend that advance notification would allow mosque leaders to conduct internal investigations, verifying any possible links to their congregations. Notification came late in the arrest of the six young men. By then the press made abundantly clear the suspects were Somalis. This left the mosque leaders flatfooted and, they feel, was contrary to the agreement.

Either way there is a crack in the outreach and relationship-building efforts. One way to cement this crack would be to re-establish the discussion about notification and put in place an agreement with more definitive parameters.

Some of the community’s rawest emotions have been directed at the Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) pilot program, recently renamed to Building Community Resilience. There were plenty of questions about the “prevention” aspects of the program. A sense of exasperation erupted in one popular coffee shop, with one man declaring the program “a cash cow for secret operations at the expense of Somali kids.” Other men moaned in agreement.

Now proposals meant to help the community cope with these emotions are emerging: First is an effort to provide financial support to families of the accused to help cover legal expenses. Readers might be quick to condemn this proposal but keep in mind citizens are presumed innocent until found guilty by a jury of their peers. It’s a basic constitutional right that extends to everyone including those charged with high crimes.

Second, many public forums are in the works — these will be places for everyone to air their concerns and be heard. At least four are scheduled in May, including one tomorrow (the first Saturday of the month). Two of the other sessions will focus on youth ages 18 to 21, a vulnerable bracket. 

Only candid conversations like these will help the community cope with emotions triggered by these arrests.

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